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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

Re-educating the Race Horse

Ivy, my favorite OTTB to date.

Over the years, I’ve worked with my share of former race horses - OTTBs, but also Quarter horses and Arabians. I’ve always found that these horses, if they’re sound, can become excellent riding partners. They are not automatically hotter or more difficult than other horses. Off-the-track horses have learned a set of aids that worked just fine on the track, but does not apply anywhere else. They have learned to function in one very specific environment. When their racing career is over, they find themselves in an unfamiliar world where the rules they know no longer apply. It’s our job to re-educate them, to explain what the new rules are and why they make sense. It’s our job to do this with compassion and patience. Here are the most common challenges a racehorse has to deal with once he moves away from the track:

1. Race horses balance on the bit, with their underneck muscles engaged. This is very different from the kind of connection we want in a dressage horse, but forcing them into a “round” frame won’t teach them that the new posture feels better than the old one at any speed slower than an all-out gallop. Teaching them to stretch forward and down, then allowing them to find the contact and gradually half-halting them up into a working frame is a much better approach.

2. Racehorses don’t know what a leg aid is, or a seat aid. Why should they? A jockey’s stirrups barely hang below the saddle, so a rider’s leg hanging down along their ribcage is, at first, a source of curiosity or annoyance, not a source of directon and information. I used to find it surprising that race horses find it difficult to move forward from the leg, but once I started thinking about where they come from, it makes perfect sense. They have to learn the language of their rider’s legs and seat, just like a horse who has never been ridden before.

Oliver, in his racing glory . . .

3. Many race horses need ground rules. They rarely know about standing still while being mounted, or about being led without charging ahead. They are not, by nature, hotter or more difficult than other horses, but no one has discouraged them from dancing around while being saddled, or from pawing while being tied. I’ve heard racehorse trainers say that a quiet, well-mannered horse will not run as fast as one who has more spirit. I don’t know whether this is true, but I do know I want to climb on a horse who stands patiently, not onto a moving target.

. . . and a few months into his new career as a trail and dressage horse.

4. A balanced three-beat canter is very difficult for them at first, especially to the right. Some racehorses have a hard time picking up the right lead, others cross-fire. They have never heard of a twenty-meter circle. I ususally don’t ask a racehorse for a canter until he has found some degree of balance in the working trot, and some sense of what a leg-yield is. The first few times of cantering a former racehorse can feel out of control, but also powerful and exhilarating. Developing the working canter takes time, skill, and lots and lots of trot-canter-trot transitons. 5. Racehorses have not developed the back muscles they need to carry a rider who actually sits in the saddle. They did not need to, because a jockey’s weight is positioned above the horse’s whithers, perched forward. So, though a racehorse is used to carry a saddle and a rider, it’s not fair to sit the trot, much less the canter, for more than a few strides at first. I also add some work over ground poles, and hill work at the walk and trot, to strengthen the back. Re-educating a racehorse takes time and patience, but it’s a rewarding kind of work. If you have done it, I would love to know your stories and experiences!

Shakin In My Boots, my all-time favorite off-the-track Quarter Horse.

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